By Jonah Goldberg
Saturday, April 29, 2017
Today is the 99th day of Der Einhundert Tage. Release the 99 luftballons!
Of course, if you’re reading this on Saturday, then today is Der Einhundert Tage! (Add one luftballon).
“What is Der Einhundert Tage?” you ask.
It’s “100 Days” in German. There’s no reason not to say it in English, save for the fact that it just sounds so much more ominous and impressive in der Sprache der Deutschen. Given how so many on the left think we’re back in 1930s Germany, I figured I’d throw them a bone. Also, I figure anything I can do to make this 100 Days thing even slightly more interesting is worth doing. Well, within reason. I’m not going to sacrifice 100 bulls in front of the White House.
In other words, I agree with Donald Trump that the 100 Days marker is an arbitrary and somewhat ridiculous device, even if he ill-advisedly invested too much in the gimmick. And it’s always been a gimmick. Even FDR’s First 100 Days — which started this nonsense — has been embellished by members of the New Deal cargo cult. Most of the legislation he passed was off the shelf from Congress and had been debated for years. FDR even opposed the FDIC when it was first brought up.
It is worth recalling that FDR’s head of the National Recovery Administration wanted a truly impressive first 90 days. Hugh “Iron Pants” Johnson (I always wondered if he went by “Iron Pants” to keep people from saying his name too fast) distributed a somewhat tongue-in-cheek memo at the Democratic National Convention in 1932 proposing that all members of Congress and the Supreme Court be put on an island for 90 days so that the administration could have a really free hand getting things done.
I mention this because a) I think it’s interesting, b) it’s always worth making a hyuuugjohnson joke when the opportunity arises (so to speak), and c) because I think it highlights an important point. The yearning for “action” implicit in the First 100 Days thing is not an altogether healthy one in a democracy. It’s not necessarily sinister, either.
There’s nothing wrong with a newly elected president trying to translate his mandate into legislation or otherwise spending his political capital when it’s at its highest. Nevertheless, there is an unpleasant cult of action implicit in the First 100 Days that I’ve never liked. After all, that was why FDR proposed it in the first place. He wanted to tell everyone to back off and let him have a free hand in his “bold, persistent experimentation.” That’s not really how our system is supposed to work. Presidents shouldn’t be able to say, “Hold my beer while I fundamentally transform America on my own.”
Die ersten hundert Tage von Präsident Trump
With all that said, what do I think of Trump’s First 100 Days? Well, since we’re on an FDR kick, I’m reminded of what one-time FDR consigliere Raymond Moley said in response to the notion that there was a coherent unified plan to the New Deal.
This has been, as Michael Warren chronicles over at The Standard, an ad hoc presidency from the outset. And like a Clinton Eastwood movie or a three-course meal of steak, tofurkey, and snails, you could say it’s been characterized by the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
What’s interesting to me is that I don’t think Trump truly realized it was going to be like this until pretty late in the game. He said in a Reuters interview just Thursday that he was surprised by how hard the job was. “I thought it would be easier,” the president said.
Now, on the one hand, all president say they’re surprised by how much harder the job is than they expected. So, fine. But Trump also says that he thought his old job would be harder than being the president of the United States. And I believe him. There are a lot of stories around Washington that jibe with this. Trump wanted to be something of a ceremonial figure, a bit like a British monarch in the 19th century, who gives some direction to the prime minister, but otherwise serves as an emblem of national greatness. It turns out that there’s more to the job than going around giving MAGA speeches and riffing on the media.
And, to Trump’s credit, it appears that he is starting to understand that and act on what should have been obvious from the get-go.
I’ve written a lot of late about how we now know Trump has no coherent ideological program. “Trumpism” is a psychological orientation, not a political philosophy. It’s actually far more similar to FDRism than a lot of people realize.
For instance, as Amity Shlaes reminds us, Franklin Roosevelt personally set the price of gold every morning: “One day [Treasury Secretary Henry] Morgenthau asked FDR why the president had chosen to drive up the price of gold by 21 cents. The president cavalierly said he’d done that because 21 was seven times three, and three was a lucky number.”
Now, FDR did have a philosophy but not a very deep one. As Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, Roosevelt had a “second-class intellect but a first-rate temperament.”
I’ll leave it to others to score Trump’s intellect, but as for his temperament, if it was a ticket on the Titanic, I suspect it would be down below decks dancing on the tables with the Irish.
That said, I’ve been mildly surprised by a few things about Trump’s performance so far — and most of them were pleasant surprises. Most of his appointments have been good and a few have been great. I think there’s a lot of hype to his executive orders, but there aren’t many I don’t support.
In short, he’s doing better than I thought he would. But this is a remarkably low bar. It’s not quite like saying that Greta is the “sexiest East German weightlifter alive” or “this is the most exciting show on C-SPAN” but it’s not that far off. Still, I hope there are many more pleasant surprises in the days to come. We only have one president at a time, and so there’s really no choice but to hope he continues to learn on the job and that his team of Sherpas can help him with the climb.
All about the Base
What vexes me about the First 100 Days, however, isn’t what it has revealed about Trump, but what it reveals about his biggest fans. This time last year, it was easy to find people who parroted — sincerely — Trump’s claim that fixing everything would be “easy.” They loved to hear him say that everyone in Washington was dumb and that he had the “best brain.” He was a super-manager, a battle-hardened Sardaukar from the ranks of the übermenschen of the business world.
Any time he did or said something ridiculous, Trump’s defenders would either defend it on the non-existent merits or explain that his critics didn’t see the genius behind his strategy. Or they would mock the notion that anyone would take what he says “literally” when all enlightened people merely take him “seriously.”
Trump would rely on his instincts like a Chinatown chicken playing tic-tac-toe, and people would call him a “chess master.” For he wasn’t any old chicken, he was the Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga of American politics (“The all-powerful rooster who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake”).
But now Trump’s biggest boosters — and much of his base according to polls — insists that they never thought it would be easy, that Trump is doing great, even though he hasn’t been remotely able to accomplish the things he wanted to in his First 100 Days, and even Trump admits that this is all so much harder than even he thought it would be. As an unnamed White House staffer told Politico, “I kind of pooh-poohed the experience stuff when I first got here. But this sh** is hard.”
But no one cares, because the signature image of the Trump presidency so far is a goalpost on wheels. Being all-in for Trump means never having to say you’re sorry.
Then there are the folks who are mostly-in for Trump. Every day I hear people say on Twitter, “Yeah, he’s flawed but at least he’s not Hillary.” But what kind of standard is that? I’m glad Hillary’s not president. Truly. But if your yardstick for a Republican president — not candidate, but president — is now “He’s better than Hillary,” then you’ve filed down the yardstick to a couple inches. “Better than Hillary” strikes me as the minimum requirement for a conservative president, not an omnibus justification for anything he does.
The Trump Transformation?
Every time the president does something controversial, pro-Trump (and anti-anti-Trump) pundits rush to a TV studio to explain that he’s staying true to his base. Sometimes that’s true, but often it’s nonsense. The base has become quite malleable in how it defines what counts as “success.” Indeed, they’re the ones usually pushing the goalpost. Moreover, the president isn’t just the president-of-his-base, he’s the president of the whole country. I always rankled when people defended George W. Bush’s malapropisms and odd syntax as something to celebrate. Wasn’t one of Ronald Reagan’s greatest attributes his status as “the Great Communicator”?
As Richard Neustadt argued a half century ago, the chief power of the president is persuasion. Lasting conservative victories can come through legislation, to be sure. But even greater ones come from changing public attitudes so that voters want to see those victories endure. FDR’s New Deal was a very mixed bag, at best. But the main reason so much of it remains intact, alas, is that he fundamentally changed American attitudes toward government.
Barack Obama famously wanted to be a liberal Reagan or FDR, fundamentally transforming political orientations in this country. The ultimate verdict on that isn’t in yet, but right now it looks like Obama failed fairly spectacularly. It’s early yet, but how is Trump doing in this regard? Who outside his “base” has been convinced of the rightness of conservative policies? Consider that support for Obamacare, free trade, and immigration are at all-time highs.
I keep waiting for Trump supporters to respond to his flip-flops (Syria, China’s currency manipulation, NATO, or his claim Thursday that he’s now a “globalist and a nationalist”) like Steve Martin in The Jerk:
He doesn’t realize he’s dealing with sophisticated people, here. Marie, now just stay calm. Stay calm. Don’t look down, don’t look down! Look up! Just keep your eyes up and keep them that way, okay! Waiter, there are snails on her plate. Now get them out of here before she sees them! Look away, just look away, keep your eyes that way! You would think that in a fancy restaurant at these prices you could keep the snails off the food! There are so many snails there you can’t even see the food! Now take those away and bring us those melted-cheese-sandwich appetizers you talked me out of!
Instead, we get so much of this kind of thing:
1) I am loyal to @realDonaldTrump.
Any further inquires, please see #1.
— Bill Mitchell (@mitchellvii) April 17, 2017